Kentucky's Justin Edwards isn't going No. 1 in the 2024 NBA Draft — and that's fine with him

Justin Edwards isn’t going to have the glamorous NBA Draft night he once imagined. In fact, he might have to wait for the second day of the draft — a new wrinkle this year, separating the two rounds — to hear his name called. But that hardly matters anymore. After a tumultuous freshman season at Kentucky, Edwards knows the victory is in getting to this moment with his professional dream and self-confidence still intact. Or at least on the mend.

“This is probably the first piece of real adversity I’ve gone through,” Edwards said. “Getting through it, as I take the next steps in my basketball career, is going to help me in the long run.”

His mother, Ebony Twiggs, was a hooper herself back in the day, MVP of the Philadelphia Public League championship game 23 years before Edwards took home that same honor. She played in college and had a pro career overseas. She knows as well as any parent that the game at its highest levels isn’t for the faint of heart. So throughout most of her son’s struggles at Kentucky, she tried to stay out of the way, keep quiet, let him sink or swim on his own. Even when it wasn’t going great for her not-so-little boy, a 6-foot-8 forward who came in with five-star hype and the heavy burden of expectation attached to that.

“I don’t talk to coaches,” Twiggs said. “I let them coach. Whatever conversation I need to have, I’ll have it with my son, so I never had a conversation with coach Cal.”

Former UK coach John Calipari, having dealt with countless helicopter parents and meddlesome inner circles, was surely relieved.

“At the beginning of the season, I was saying, ‘Why is he taking Justin out?’” Twiggs said. “But then it was like, ‘No, Justin, the common denominator is you. You have to fix this.’ I always told him if a coach isn’t hard on you, you don’t want to be coached by that guy. And even when he was struggling, coach Cal saw something in him that maybe other people couldn’t, so I just wanted Justin to keep fighting.”

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Justin Edwards had to adjust to some tough love from Kentucky coach John Calipari. (Jordan Prather / USA Today)

But there did come a point when Twiggs realized her son needed an intervention. He arrived in Lexington as a consensus top-three overall recruit in the Class of 2023 and most early projections for the 2024 NBA Draft had him going in the lottery, at least. Some predicted a top-five selection and a few, including The Athletic, pegged him as the potential No. 1 pick.

So when he averaged just 7.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, shot 44.2 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from 3-point range through his first 20 games at Kentucky, a sputtering start in which he hardly even looked like a draft pick at all, Edwards spiraled. By late February, he admitted, “I’ve been struggling mentally for … basically the whole season.”

His mom could tell, and she couldn’t stay on the sideline any longer.

“There’s no handbook for this,” she said. “It was hard for me to just sit there, but I felt like I needed to let him work through it. I can’t play for him. And I would say, ‘You chose to come here, so you have to figure it out.’ But when I knew that he was struggling mentally, I had to sit him down and just tell him, ‘Every negative thing that you possibly have in your mind right now, put it in a bag and throw it in the trash.’ We had to have a talk. I didn’t want to, but I said, ‘It’s time for me to step in.’”

As it turned out, all Edwards really needed was to hear that it was OK to fail. That it didn’t matter if he ever played a minute in the NBA. That his family would be just fine, no matter what happened with his basketball career. Those reassurances lifted an enormous weight off Edwards that he didn’t even realize he was carrying.

“I was so tense,” Edwards said. “Trying to make it, basically. I would say I was worried about the NBA too much. My little brother looks up to me, and I used to say I wanted to make it for him. My mom told me to stop saying that, to just be myself, do it for myself, and that helped me out a lot. Just knowing that my mom is always going to be in my corner. Hearing that from her, really helped.”

Twiggs remembers her son listening quietly as she unburdened him of all that expectation, and then he began to cry.

“He said, ‘I really needed that, Mom,’” she said. “I told him nobody else gets to dictate your future, and whatever you decide to do and be, it’s going to be OK. Sometimes that’s all your kids need to hear from you. I told him, ‘Your future is in your hands.’”

Edwards also got an assist from Kentucky teammate Reed Sheppard, who was experiencing the opposite phenomenon: He’d come in with modest expectations and almost non-existent NBA Draft stock only to become an overnight sensation, the national freshman of the year and likely top-five pick. Sheppard had been working with a mental health coach since high school, and when he saw Edwards struggling, he put them in touch.

“He always notices,” Edwards said. “If I was having a bad day, Reed would tell me, ‘You gotta smile.’ Having a guy like that in my corner helps a lot. And getting a mental coach really changed things for me.”

Sheppard, the son of two former Kentucky stars, knows better than anyone the pressures that come with putting on that uniform.

“Everyone struggles mentally,” he said. “Some people just struggle a little more and some people don’t say anything about it. If you need help, you need to get help. It’s no fun when you’re not good mentally, and it’s huge at Kentucky. The fans are the best fans in the world, but they’re crazy. The coaches are the best coaches in the world, but they’re going to push you hard, so you’ve definitely got to be strong mentally.”

When Edwards wasn’t living up to his high school hype, the noise from fans — especially online, where anonymity only adds to the animus — was deafening. He had to learn to literally and figuratively mute that negativity.

“The way they talk about players, I feel like they don’t remember that we’re human,” said Edwards, whose mental coach eventually taught him the importance of relentlessly positive self-talk. “Coming in, everybody expected me to be the top guy that people said I was — and I still believe I am — and they were angry when I wasn’t. But me going through that early part of the season helped me be the person I am today.”

A funny thing happened when Edwards stopped fixating on what other people wanted him to be: He started to look a lot more like that guy, after all.

On Feb. 6, he scored 17 points in a win at Vanderbilt. On Feb. 24, he shot 10-of-10 from the field, including four made 3s, and dropped 28 points in a rout of Alabama. On March 9, he had 16 points, six boards, three assists and hit four more 3s in a win at Tennessee. In the final 10 games of the regular season, in which Kentucky went 8-2, Edwards averaged 11.6 points, shot 61.5 percent from the field, 55.2 percent from 3 and 83.3 percent at the free-throw line.

“I could not be more proud of any player I’ve ever coached,” Calipari said in March. “To know where he was, to know the expectations that were on his shoulders, to know all the stuff he was hearing. I said, ‘Justin, I just want you to know, I believe in you.’ And he said, ‘Coach, I want you to know I believe in you and I’m sticking with this.’”

Edwards won’t be the No. 1 pick. He won’t be a lottery pick. He probably isn’t a first-rounder. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie has him projected 56th overall to the Denver Nuggets while several other major mock drafts have him slotted anywhere from late-30s to mid-40s. It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that a title contender without any major immediate needs might take a flier on the 20-year-old former McDonald’s All-American late in the first round.

However the draft unfolds for Edwards, he’ll attack his goals with the same renewed confidence.

“I know,” he said, “I can still be that guy.”

(Top photo: Petre Thomas / USA Today)

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